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Northern Ireland drifting nowhere

The situation in Northern Ireland seems fraught. The power sharing executive collapsed. Elections were called and between them, the Democratic Unionists (DUP) and Sinn Fein (SF) won 55 of the 90 seats at Stormont, so until SF is willing to nominate a Deputy First Minister there is a deadlock. How can that be reversed?

The constitutional arrangements in Northern Ireland are unusual, to say the least. No one party is allowed to control the Assembly. That was one outcome of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought to an end many years of conflict between republicans who wanted the North to join with the Republic and unionists who wanted to remain part of the UK. The DUP initially refused to be part of the agreement but after a stuttering start that saw four suspensions and a return to direct rule from Westminster, a new chapter started in 2007 when Ian Paisley became the First Minister and Martin McGuinness Deputy First Minister. Despite their past enmity, they made it work and became friends. Perhaps this shows we should not give up hope of a resolution now.

The ostensible reason for the breakdown in January was Arlene Foster’s handling of the Renewable Heat initiative, set up in 2012 before she became First Minister. It was a scheme to encourage businesses to switch from fossil fuels to more environmentally friendly energy sources. The problem with it was the generous subsidies offered to induce participation that created an over-spend of £490 million. SF demanded she stand aside while this was investigated and she refused so McGuinness resigned precipitating the automatic collapse of the Executive. The subsequent elections saw SF winning 27 seats to DUP’s 28. Two weeks of talks have failed to bridge the gulf between the two major parties and restore the power-sharing government.

That bald summary does not tell the whole story. There were other issues on which the two parties disagreed. One such issue was same-sex marriage, which the DUP strongly opposed. Underlying specific issues was a lack of willingness to compromise. SF wanted legislation to give Gaelic equal status to English in the province and the DUP blocked this. There is also a festering disagreement about how to deal with the unsolved crimes of the era of the ‘Troubles’. Perhaps SF resented high handedness on the part of the DUP even though their share of the votes and seats is now so close. More than any of these factors, the absence of the relationship between Paisley and McGuinness that previously undergirded the Executive is seriously missed.

There is a way forward but no guarantee that it will be followed. Back in the 1990’s before the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, an unofficial group of Christians, including some eminent public figures, met with senior Northern Ireland figures, both unionists and republicans for private weekend house parties. The aim was not to mediate but simply to help build relationships as a precursor for mediation under the auspices of the British and Irish governments. These weekends created a relational atmosphere that made the subsequent negotiations easier. There probably isn’t time now to repeat that exercise but something like it to build bridges rather than divisions is Northern Ireland’s best hope of stopping the drifting. Praying for the peace makers is something we can all do.